Moses Burnham and The Moosehead Lake Steam Navigation Company

Forks Hotel

Hotel at The Forks, Maine, ca. 1870

In the summer of 1836, twenty-six year old Moses W. Burnham moved from New Hampshire to The Forks, Maine, where he resided until 1861. For all those years, he was Postmaster and proprietor of a hotel at the south end of the bridge over the East Branch of the Kennebec River. The hotel was located on the site of the present rest area – now a favorite spot to watch whitewater rafters paddling through.

Burnham came to the Upper Kennebec as one of the men responsible for launching the first steamship on Moosehead Lake. In January 1835, he was one of a group of businessmen who petitioned for the incorporation of the Moosehead Lake Steam Navigation Company. Maine Archives holds the original handwritten request for incorporation, transcribed as follows:

To the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Maine in Legislature assembled January 1835 –

The memorial of the undersigned respectfully shewes – that they are owners of Lands contiguous to Moosehead Lake in said state and are extensively concerned in the business of lumbering upon the same. That the present method of transporting logs timber & other lumber across said Lake is exceedingly tedious and expensive, & subjects not only the undersigned, but all others concerned in the business to much cost and delay –     A steamboat upon that Lake, which should  be allowed the exclusive navigation of it by steam for a definite period, would in the opinion of the undersigned, pay its proprietors a fair compensation – It would moreover be of incalculable advantage to all persons doing business upon in that section of the State – The enterprise we are aware, would be attended with considerable cost, but we do not apprehend, with much eventual loss –      The undersigned therefore pray that they with their associates successors & assigns, may be incorporated into a body politic by the name of the Moose Head Steam Navigation Company, with the exclusive privilege of navigating the waters of Moose Head Lake by steam for the term of years, provided they with such other provisions restrictions, powers & limitations as you in your wisdom may enact. – and as duty bound will ever pray –

The petition was signed by Pearson Cogswell, Leonard Holmes, Asa B. Hogins, Samuel C. Fitzgerald, Isaac Child, Moses W. Burnham, Jonas Brown, and J. Merrill; it was approved by the legislature March 12, 1835.


Detail of Signatures, Petition for Incorporation of the Moosehead Lake Steam Navigation Company, 1835.

The first meeting of the Corporation was held at Haskell’s Hotel in Portland, Maine in July 1835. This enterprising group of men from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine achieved their goal, launching “The Moosehead” on April 23, 1836, and completing it by May 18th of that year. The boat was built primarily to tow logs across the lake, but the owners hoped to profit from it in other ways.  They soon began advertising occasional pleasure excursions for geologists and mineralogists, in Boston and Maine newspapers.

The engine for the steamboat was made by Holmes Hinckley of Boston. One of Hinckley’s partners was Daniel Child, brother of navigation company incorporator Isaac Child. The boat, with her steam engine, boilers, and all other equipment, was auctioned at Greenville on February 13, 1842. It was purchased by a group that included the Coburns of Skowhegan, who began their long association with  subsequent Moosehead steamboats.

Moses Burnham brought his bride, Louisa Morse, to The Forks in the fall of 1836, where their four daughters were born. Louisa died at The Forks in March 1860, a year before Moses was implicated in a murder. The victim was Mitchel Berry, a shepherd who lived at the hotel and was employed by Moses. Burnham left The Forks in September 1861, under suspicion that he and a Solon man were responsible for Berry’s death.  Moses moved back to New Hampshire when he left The Forks, and eventually moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he died in 1875.  There is a monument to Moses and Louisa Burnham in Horse Meadow Cemetery, North Haverhill, New Hampshire.

Burnham marker

Cemetery Monument for Moses W. and Louisa (Morse) Burnham. M. Gondek Photo.

Moses Burnham and his business associate, Samuel Clark Fitzgerald, left  a legacy in the form of two little ponds west of Moosehead Lake – Burnham and Fitzgerald ponds were named for them.  Fitzgerald Pond has since been renamed Mountain View Pond.


Burnham and Fitzgerald Ponds, west of Moosehead Lake


  • Maine Archives, Corporation Records of the Moosehead Lake Steam Navigation Company.
  • Private and Special Acts of the State of Maine Passed by the Fifteenth Legislature, at its session, held in January, 1835. Augusta: William J. Condon, 1835. Chapter 564. Accessed at Google Books, March 1, 2018.
  • “Steamer on Moosehead Lake,” Eastern Argus, (Portland, Maine 10 May 1836, pg.1) Viewed January , 2017. (Subscription service)
  • Walter S. Hinchman, Holmes Hinckley, Industrial Pioneer. 1793-1866, (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1913), 40.
  • “Steamer Moose Head at Auction.” Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (Bangor, Maine, 28 January 1842, page 3). Accessed March 1, 2018. (Subscription service)
  • This article includes material excerpted from the author’s recent book, The Forks of the Kennebec: Sources for an early history of settlement and timber speculation (Bingham, Maine, 2017).

© Marilyn Sterling-Gondek, 2018.

2 thoughts on “Moses Burnham and The Moosehead Lake Steam Navigation Company

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